by Peter Filichia

Mark Mineart is one of those actors who go from star parts to ensemble roles and back again. Who are some others?

So there I was, watching the lackluster production of Julius Caesar at the Belasco. I was thinking that, when I sat down to write about it, I'd be quoting a line from Mark Antony's speech: "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now." Then, suddenly, an actor came on stage and I looked at my girlfriend, who looked at me at the precise same time. We both recognized the guy: Mark Mineart!

Okay, you're pardoned if you're not as excited as we at the prospect of seeing Mark Mineart on stage. But last September, when we attended a production of Of Mice and Men at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, we were very impressed by his performance as Lennie. Lord knows that too many actors over the years have caricatured this poor soul, but Mineart was terrific in the part. I can still see his big smile when his Lennie savored remembering a fact, only to follow it with a quick frown if the memory was unpleasant. When his Lennie couldn't remember something he thought he should have retained, Mineart gave a look of utmost shame. Along the way, he showed the dignity of a simple human being who wanted to be the best he could be, no matter how hard the battle.

Now, in Julius Caesar's cast list, Mark Mineart's name rests next to that of Dan Moran; they are both "Guards to Caesar." His name doesn't even appear solo on a line -- even though, in this age when minor cast members almost always play additional roles, he does more than just guard the guy. He's listed as one of the "Citizens, Plebeians, Senators, Soldiers, Guards, and Commoners." More specifically, he's one of the four men who carries off Brutus's body (hope I didn't give away anything there!) and one of the angry Romans who pull apart Cinna the Poet.

I'm sure that Mineart is grateful to be appearing on Broadway. He's probably getting more money here than he did in Madison, New Jersey, and is undoubtedly getting a few extra bucks for also being the show's Fight Captain. But while the cash may feed his stomach, it doesn't necessarily feed his soul. To paraphrase Sondheim: top billing one day; next day you're playing a guard.

Still, he's here, and he may even be happier than he was last September. We've all heard of actors who'd landed plum roles in regional productions and then, when a Broadway job suddenly turned up, it was bye-bye Bowie, Bayonne, or Bethlehem. Actors will often give up a lead even if the Broadway job only involves covering a part. Shirley MacLaine, Judy Kaye, and Brad Oscar were once covers themselves, but lightning struck for them. "Perhaps," other actors think, "it will do the same for me" -- so adieu to their roles of Hamlet in Huntsville or Dolly in Davenport.

Still, taking a small part after having a lead must smart. If I had to list my all-time favorite performances, I know I'd include George Pentecost as Michael and Bill Moor as Harold in the national company of The Boys in the Band in 1969. Each of the five times I saw them, I was immeasurably impressed. Four years later, when I attended the New Phoenix Repertory production of Chemin de Fer, I saw them reunited; but each had nothing more than a walk-on, Pentecost as a butler and Moor as a police commissioner. Both productions were in Boston -- Boys at the Wilbur and Chemin at the Shubert, right across the street. I had to wonder how many other Bostonians in the audience knew and remembered how brilliant these two were once upon a time.

At that same Shubert in 1971, I attended the final matinee of Lolita, My Love with my buddy Richard Norton, who'd already attended but was returning for a second look at this problematic yet fascinating musical with a glorious score. Early in the performance, during a chorus number, Richard saw me suddenly dive into my program. "Yes," he said knowingly, "that's Irwin Pearl up there." And indeed, that's what I was checking the program to see. Less than a year earlier, Pearl was one of the much-acclaimed foursome who'd played the Marx Brothers in Minnie's Boys for a few months, until that show abruptly closed. Could it be that he was now "just" a member of the chorus? For me, it was seeing what Cassie would experience and disclose to us four years later in A Chorus Line: After a promising start in the business, you could be headed back to the ensemble.

At least Pearl was in the show. Seven years later, when I went to see Ballroom, I noticed Marilyn Cooper sitting at the back of the theater on a folding chair. The program told me that she was understudying two roles. Here was a woman who'd been in the original West Side Story and Gypsy, and was the leading lady in I Can Get It for You Wholesale -- but now, 16 years later, she was relegated to understudy status. Yet two and a half years later, for her work in Woman of the Year, Cooper won a Tony Award and expressed one of my all-time favorite sentiments in her acceptance speech: "I guess if you sit at the poker table long enough, you eventually come up with a winning hand." Brava, Marilyn!

But there are other ways to look at this. I was despondent in 1986 to see Olympia Dukakis play a minor role in a minor Broadway play titled Social Security. This was the woman whose performance as Mother Courage at the Charles Playhouse in Boston had changed my life, inspiring me to read and see every Bertolt Brecht play I could. Yet here was Dukakis in this boulevard comedy, playing a much older woman who could only get around with the aid of a walker. What a waste -- except that one of the play's 388 performances was attended by director Norman Jewison, who thought that Dukakis was just what he needed for his upcoming movie Moonstruck. If Dukakis had felt that the part in Social Security was beneath her and had not taken the job, she would have missed out on both her Oscar and her household-name status.

Another memory: In 1994, I went to the Paper Mill Playhouse to see a production of Oliver! After the performance ended, I perused my program in earnest and found that the role of Bet -- one of the "It's a Fine Life" ladies, who's little more than a glorified chorus girl -- was played by Aileen Quinn. I wonder how many kids who attended this production realized that this was the same person whom they'd watched in the title role of Annie dozens of times on their VCRs? (I myself had only seen the movie once, for reasons that I'll bet all of you can discern.)

Anyway, Mark Mineart -- whose only previous Broadway employment amounted to playing a murderer in Kelsey Grammer's 13-performance Macbeth in 2000 -- is back on the Main Stem. There he is on stage, capable of so much more than he's being asked to do. During his many offstage moments, is he passing time by singing "All I Need Is One Good Break" from Flora, the Red Menace? I wonder if any other people in the audience had had my Mineart experience with some other performer in the show -- maybe the aforementioned Dan Moran, or Jacqueline Antaramian, or Jason Manuel Olazabal? Had they seen any of them in a lead, dominating the stage and making an indelible impression? The average Broadway cast is probably full of amazing talent that most spectators will never get to see. And that, I guess, is show business.